Carol and I were just about to step out of the house to head for a Sunday morning hike when the smoke alarm went off. In between a series of 85-decibel warning shrieks the downstairs unit frantically shouted “FIRE!! FIRE!!” just in case we didn’t get the point. With no apparent signs of smoke I pushed a button to trigger the “hush” feature, which is there in case I’ve merely burned the toast or decided to take up smoking cigars indoors. We have three inter-connected units and by now the other two had taken up the war cry, so I dashed around the house to get them all to shut the       £#¢k up. Presuming the source has been contained within ten minutes, the system will then reset and remain silent. During that time, I checked to make sure all the appliances were off (they were) and then wedged myself into the crawl space under the house to see if the oil burner was engulfed in flames (it wasn’t). Finding no apparent source of concern I came back inside, expecting the incident to become a distant if unsettling memory. Presuming this had been just an anomalous outburst, we picked up our hiking supplies and headed again for the door.
Right at the ten-minute mark: “SHRIEK – SHRIEK – SHRIEK!!” “FIRE!! FIRE!!” “SHRIEK – SHRIEK – SHRIEK – SHRIEK!!” “WARNING!! CARBON MONOXIDE!!” That was a new wrinkle — invisible, deadly gas was now potentially introduced into the alleged calamity. I mashed the hush buttons again but none of the units would stop screaming. Besides the two of us going deaf, the poor cats were completely freaked out and ran around the house seeking refuge from the noise. I opened the door to the electrical panel and flipped off the breaker controlling the alarms. That didn’t faze them since there is also a 9-volt battery in each unit as a backup. I popped open the door to the battery compartments to completely disconnect the power. Even then, the system made a gasp with its last breath, sounding like someone in the midst of an asthma attack gasping in a hoarse whisper for an inhaler just out of reach. “Shriek!… shriek… fi..re!
By now we were thoroughly rattled and decided to put off our departure until we could get the alarms to calm down permanently. I dug out the user’s guide and spent a solid fifteen minutes trying to make sense of it. With a collapsed size the same as a deck of playing cards, and seemingly contrary to the dictum that no piece of paper can be folded in half more than seven times, the fully expanded guide ended up hanging over the edges of our dining room table. I finally found the troubleshooting section after trying to read type set with a font size of “neutrino”. Here I was instructed to remove the units from their wall mounts and give them a thorough vacuuming to remove any dust. I did so, then remounted them and flipped on the breaker. While this effort seemed to soothe the upstairs hallway alarm, the other two immediately resumed their overlapping hyperbole, creating a ping-ponging echo between upstairs and down: “WARNING!!NING!! CARBONBON MONOXIDE!!NOXIDE!!” Now we were convinced the alarms were dysfunctional and so left for our stroll with the breaker shut off, batteries disconnected… and windows open. Just in case.
Every few months there’s a story on the news about an electrical fire where overheated wiring buried in a wall smolders for hours before finally combusting. The unsuspecting family returns home several hours later to find their house engulfed in flames and all their belongings reduced to ash.
That’s not at all what happened to us — but I had you there for a moment, didn’t I? The house was intact and the cats were roaming around, still suffering with tinnitus but conscious and alert — so no fire and no gas leak. I replaced the units the next day, opting to go with a system that was not interconnected. So far we haven’t been startled by any further digitized warning cries. Or tripped over any dead cats. Everything is back to normal and we’re again tripping over the cats only when they’re sleeping on the stairs. I guess the next thing I need to install is a “lack of motion” detector in order to avoid a completely different kind of cat-tastrophe.

I hope that feeble pun didn’t alarm you.